Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Nothing in this world is like you

Lone leaf in the wilderness

Bob Dylan released his first Christmas album this year. The Weekly Standard says, in typically erudite prose: “It’s so bad I can’t believe it.”

Do I believe it’s bad? No. It’s one of the best Christmas albums I’ve ever heard. But of course I would say that. Right? I’m one of those battered Dylan wives Andrew Ferguson talks about. I have to admit--I love even Self-Portrait. Seriously. I was listening to iTunes on shuffle the other day (last month, actually--December is for Christmas music), and “Wigwam” came on. God, do I love that song. It has a flat-out good melody. So catchy. Dah-dah-daa dah-da. I love “All the Tired Horses,” too. The entire album is infused with world-weariness, with exhaustion. And I love Tijuana brass.

I find it interesting that other people (mainly critics on the internet) feel a need to tell me what’s good and what’s bad, in overtly moral language. As if I’m sinning by liking different music than they do. That if I love Dylan singing “how’m I gonna get any riding done,” or “here comes Santa Claus,” that there’s something wrong with me. Sure, I give Dylan a hell of a lot of free passes. I’ve seen him eighteen times in concert. Each and every one of those eighteen shows was one of the best days of my life.

I have a theory about art, though, a theory I’ve been cobbling together since college, when I was exposed to Abstract Expressionism, an entire movement in art that the Weekly Standard writes off in a half-sentence. My theory is that the relationship between artist and audience is the same as that between husband and wife, father and child, creation and Creator--one of trust. If I can trust an artist’s intelligence, trust that the purpose she’s serving is beauty, truth, and the spirit of the holy, then that artist can get away with almost anything. But thinking about it as “getting away with” is a problem in itself. It implies a lack of trust.

My married friends have the same problem. If your husband is working late, and you think to yourself: he’s working late because he loves me and our children, you are trusting him. If you think: he’s not really working late. He’s out screwing someone else. Then the trust in the relationship is lost. But those are your two choices. You can choose to trust, or choose not to.

If an artist puts a table in the middle of the room, and calls it art, I have two choices: I can say--she’s a charlatan. Or I can ask myself--what’s she trying to do here? What reason can there be behind this? How is beauty served?

As someone who wrestles with creativity every day, who struggles to find a place for herself in the universe by putting words together on a page, who fights to create order out of the chaos, I know how much work it is. And if I trust an artist, I’m going to seek to find the meaning I know they fought for.

I trust Dylan. The caustic criticism he encounters whenever he steps out of bounds is the same thing he’s had to fight his entire career. He was a folk genius, the voice of his generation, and people put him in the little box of folk genius. And Dylan said: no. I’m bigger than that. I’m going to follow my muse, and all of you can go screw yourselves. Or you can follow my lead.

To all the critics, I ask:
-Do you think no one’s ever asked Dylan to do a Christmas album before?
-Do you think he’s so senile he wasn’t aware of what he was doing?
-Do you think that all Christmas music is, by definition, bad?
-Do you think that Dylan performs 200 concerts a year, at $50 a ticket, at almost seventy years of age, because he’s trying to wring a couple of more bucks out of his aging fan base? Because he’s trying to punch his audience in the face? Or could it possibly because he genuinely loves music in all its incarnations, loves performing, because all he’s ever wanted is to be, as he called it, a “song-and-dance man”?

Sufjan Stevens can release a Christmas album,and we take it seriously. Johnny Cash can release albums of gospel classics, and we take him seriously. Brooklyn indie artists release albums full of animal howling, and we take them seriously. But Dylan releases an album about Santa Claus and we can’t even give him the benefit of the doubt? Four decades of the greatest music of our time hasn’t earned him that? Come on.

The thing about those smiling Dylan fans? At the end of the day, we have our music. Which we love. And as much as the critics sneer, they can’t take it away from us.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

O tempo eu que eu fico

Blooming Christmas cactus

God says certain words to me at moments in my life, moments when he wants to emphasize a point. To bring me to a crux of humility. And I love him for it. I do. I love him like Saint Teresa of Avila did, on her bed in the monastery.

Tonight it was when the Amens from the Messiah flooded my speakers, on the iTunes random shuffle that I insist on using at all times. That way God can speak to me, through the intersection of random electrons in my computer circuits.

When I was a little lost American kid in Bangkok, one of the few cultural events my parents dragged us to was a complete rendition of Handel’s Messiah, performed every Christmas. It was one of the few ways we could get into the spirit of the season. Thailand is a Buddhist country, and the idea of Christmas hadn’t caught on yet. The weather didn’t help. Bangkok is the hottest city in the world, averaging daytime and nighttime temperatures, and winter for us was a week where it didn’t get above ninety degrees.

I don’t remember where the music was performed, other than it feeling distant from home, maybe a Catholic church, where wooden window slats opened onto a tropical garden that felt like Gethsemane, while slow ceiling fans circled above us. Every year, all three of us kids would fall asleep, especially during the Passion Week doldrums at the center of the oratorio, when the bass and the tenor sing recitatives about how much Christ suffered. During intermission, we drank Milo, non-American powdered hot chocolate, curling our hands around the paper cups in defense against the chilly seventy-degree weather. This contributed to our sleepiness.

If you know anything about the Messiah you know that the whole thing was written in 21 days, when Handel locked himself in an attic apartment, had food shoved under his door, and saw the face of God. At the time, he was a rather mediocre eighteenth-century composer at a low point in his career, on the edge of starvation, and paralyzed on his left side by a stroke, or so the legend goes. At the end of his rope, he grudgingly agreed to set a friend’s libretto to music.

The whole thing is brilliant, of course, and even stands up to the Southern Baptist church choirs that butcher it every year. The first section has most of the famous Christmas bits. But even those are more surprising and relevant than you expect. “Comfort ye my people, saith your God,” the tenor sings, crying unto Jerusalem that her warfare is accomplished and iniquity is pardoned. Even if you don’t believe in God, at Christmas, it’s hard not to believe that this means something. Maybe our warfare really has been accomplished.

When Handel dives down into Easter, where it gets very dark, and little children in the audience go to sleep, the text is surprising. “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” And “Behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow.” Not exactly the Christmas of poinsettias and jolly old elves, but this is the section that ends with the Hallelujah chorus, which, as legend has it, also woke up King George. He jumped up, and everyone else had to follow.

After coming back with the resurrection, the chorus simply becomes the angels singing at the throne of God. “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” begins the soprano. Everything’s over, the whole vast saga, and good has won and evil has been vanquished and the apocalypse is done.

Then you check your program, and you see that one little word printed there, “Amen,” and you sigh to yourself. “Phew. It’s almost over.” But having seen the face of God, for 21 days in a row, Handel can’t let the thing end. The Amens begin quietly, a slow rising melody, echoed by the tenors, then altos, then basses, then sopranos, and they build, and build, and build, for a full twelve minutes. The melody is sweet, but the triumph of victory is gone.

As if he’s saying, “Sure, I know all of this is too good to be true. Maybe the nations still furiously rage together, maybe none of the dead have risen. But isn’t it beautiful anyway? Don’t you wish it were true? Can’t you believe, just for tonight?” And still the Amens keep building, wave after wave, and the sopranos casually hit the high notes and the timpanis break out and it’s triumphant and beautiful but still sad and you don’t want it to be over, you don’t ever want it to be over, and just when you think that it never will be over everything goes dead silent and you think, please let there be more. And there is. At the final moment, not one, but two Amens. Even then he can’t let it go.

But then it really is over. And you go back into the muggy tropical night, and it’s really really late, it feels later than you’ve ever stayed up before, and your little brother’s still asleep and your dad’s going to carry him to the truck and you know that you’re going to fall asleep too as you drive across town and then you’ll be carried up to bed, but in that moment it’s all true. You believe it all. And you will, every time you hear it, for the rest of your life.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

I wish I had a river

Sunset on Lake Michigan

I spent two weeks in early October at the beach with my family, at Door County, a peninsula completely surrounded by water. Unfortunately, it was also as far north as the Maine section of the Appalachian trail, so it was like sudden winter onset. It was fun spending the week with my family, but the weather was horrible, and we were all trapped inside, at the beach, circled by white-capped waves and wind-lashed trees. It made me long for the life I had at sea. One day it blew 65 knots, according to the weather.

So we watched Star Wars movies. When I was about as old as Sophia is now, I tried to watch Return of the Jedi with my dad at a beach-front restaurant in Thailand, and I still have a vivid memory of Princess Leia coming up on a frozen Han Solo in a darkened corridor, the light shining from above, his hands clutching out from the metal. I was terrified. So terrified that I convinced my dad to leave. This was when, if you recall, the movie had just come out on VHS. Yes, I’m that old.

So it’s about time for Sophia to be terrified in her own time. When you think about it, Star Wars is a pretty good child’s morality fable. Especially Darth Vader. He starts as Anakin Skywalker--good--morphs into Darth Vader--bad--and ends up redeeming himself as Luke’s father--good, again. It’s nice to have children learn that people can be more complex than being just good guys and bad guys at an early age.

It can be hard to be around my family, though, as much as I love them. I guess it boils down to how my life path has diverged from the standard one expected by my grandparents and parents, by the evangelical subculture, by, maybe, even the culture at large. When you think about it, standard operating procedure equals:

1. Go to college.
2. Get a job and an apartment.
3. Meet husband (preferably good Christian boy).
4. Get married.
5. Buy house.
6. Have lots of uber-cute children.
7. Successfully balance family and life’s work (preferably in Christian service).
8. Die surrounded by loving grandchildren (preferably with great-grandchildren on the way).

Somewhere between items two and three my life got significantly derailed. I decided I hated my job and my life, I hated winter, I hated spending eight hours a day behind a desk, working for someone else’s dream. So I quit. I swore I’d never work in an office again. (Going on six years and I haven’t broken that promise to myself. Yet.) I’m not even so sure about the whole marriage thing, and so far, my candidates for the office of life partner have not been--exactly--good Christian boys.

Does this bother me? I’d be lying if I didn’t say yes. It’s harder when I’m around my siblings, who seem to be managing so well. My sister’s children are uber-cute. My brother’s getting married this summer, to the daughter of a doctor, and a good Christian to boot. And what am I doing? Struggling to find my way. Still. Struggling to swim against the current. Because that eight-point life? I don’t like it. I don’t want my life to look that way. I don’t want that engraved on my tombstone.

I used to say, especially when I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, that the measure of a life should be in its 360-degree views. I remember sitting at a stoplight on my commute to Oak Brook, Illinois, at a five-lane traffic intersection and thinking: this is it? This is what my life looks like? A life constrained by a metal box, by asphalt, and low-budget mid-rise buildings. On the Pacific Crest Trail, I was eating ramen noodles and living in a teepee, but the 360-degree views were fabulous. Snow-covered mountains. Tundra. Streams of melted snow. Glacial ponds. It was another world, and around each corner was something I’d never seen before.

I’m fighting for that kind of life. Sometimes I feel like I’m drowning, but I keep fighting. Especially in December, now that it feels like Door County in Tennessee. We had seventy-knows winds this week. I’ve broken out my down jackets and winter hat. The sun has disappeared. I don’t care what anyone says--I hate this time of year. Christmas tries to make up for it, but it doesn’t quite do the trick.